The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City
(Bridge Nine ***)
“Rock and roll is my favorite sin. / Man, I don’t know if I’m good at it, / but I’m too in love or dumb to quit,” James Alex rasps in “Let It Ride” from The Deadbeat Bang of Heartbreak City, the third Beach Slang full-length. Alex, the former front man of Bethlehem, Pa., pop-punk Weston, is a rock-and-roll lifer, and his seeming insecurity is unfounded: He is indeed good at crafting brash and bold anthems with unabashed roots in power pop, glam, and especially the Replacements.
Here, Alex is joined by one of his heroes, Replacement bassist Tommy Stinson, along with Cursive/Okkervil River drummer Cully Symington and a bunch of horn and string players. A few ballads could have turned up on his Quiet Slang side project, and they’re welcome breathers within an album full of fast, breathless songs. The sound is big — not scrappy, an adjective that has been ubiquitous for Beach Slang, although it still fits the underdog attitude. With the help of mixer Brad Wood (Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair), songs like “Kicking Over Bottles” and “Tommy in the ‘80s” (in memory of power pop master Tommy Keene) sound better suited for arenas than for the bars in which most of them are set. — Steve Klinge
All My Dues Are Paid
(Nola Blue *** 1/2)
The album title is pointed — and on-point. Bey, now in his mid-70s, began performing as a child in his native Georgia, and over the decades, the Philadelphia-based soul-blues singer has experienced a lot of ups and downs. All My Dues Are Paid continues the stirring career renaissance that began with another tellingly titled collection, 2018’s Back in Business.
The core support here comes from members of Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, a stellar blues band (Estrin and guitarist Kid Anderson produced the album), as well as standout keyboardist Jim Pugh. Bey, a onetime driver for Otis Redding who is billed on his website as “The Southern Gentleman of the Blues,” is in utter command as he ranges from horn-accented R&B to supper-club blues and aching country-soul, with echoes along the way of the gospel he grew up singing. His knockout rendition of the country classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” exemplifies the depth of feeling he brings to everything here and his ability to reanimate even the most familiar material.
On “One Thing Every Day,” Bey exhorts listeners to “make this world a better place.” The set then closes with a 6 1/2-minute version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that slowly builds to a thrillingly testifying climax. It neatly sums up all the hope and resilience that, in the face of pain and struggle, beat in the heart of Bey’s music. — Nick Cristiano
A misguided love affair with a con man prompted Desert Message, the debut album from Heather Valley, out of Hamilton, Ontario. “You took me up to your room, gave me gifts you had stolen. / How’d you get that crooked smile to look so even?” she sings wistfully in “Lovejoy,” a loping track laced with pedal steel from Philadelphia’s Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner. Valley bonded with Brenner, who plays throughout the album, over a shared respect for Jason Molina (Brenner was in Molina’s Songs: Ohia for a time). Desert Message has some of Molina’s moody tension and emotional depth, although with the exception of the crashing, insistent “Ohio River,” the tone is lighter and gentler.